'I'm not wet behind the ears': Hamilton back on track
Briton weathers the storms of Silverstone, and his private life, to evoke memories of Senna
Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren's chief executive, said it was something nobody in the team would forget. He was not talking about Ayrton Senna's triumphal domination of the weather at Donington Park back in 1993, though he certainly could have been. Instead, he was assessing Lewis Hamilton's majestic victory in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone last week, which bore even the most forensic comparison with Senna's success.
In 2007, an insouciant Hamilton spent his rookie season embarrassing his infinitely more experienced team-mate, the double world champion Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard was so bruised he decamped back to Renault in a degree of dudgeon similar to that with which Alain Prost quit McLaren for Ferrari back in 1990 when Senna ran him out of town.
Hamilton's pace had showed hitherto unsuspected flaws in Alonso's make-up. Where he had seemed so peerless in 2005 and 2006 as he saw off Michael Schumacher, now Alonso looked like a man who could be beaten.
When Hamilton delivered another victory, in the opening race in Australia, he seemed set for an invincible run in 2008. Then came a practice error in Bahrain, followed by a stall on the start line and a misjudgement when he ran into the back of Alonso early in the race. He made amends for that in Monte Carlo, where a brush with the wall on the fifth lap actually helped him to a stunning victory in the wet. Then the pit-lane error in Montreal, where he failed to see a red light and augered into the back of Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari, set him back again.
Not helped by his father's reaction to a critical media, Hamilton experienced a backlash for the first time and, having also failed to score in Magny-Cours in a dull French Grand Prix, he went to Silverstone knowing that something very special was required to get what looked like a faltering championship campaign back on track.
What he delivered to his adoring fans transcended special. He made a wonderful start, jumping from fourth on the grid to rub wheels with his polesitting team-mate Heikki Kovalainen as they vied for the lead.
That move did not quite come off, but five laps later he slipped ahead on the entry to the daunting Becketts corner in a move that, Kovalainen admitted later, knocked the stuffing out of him. From then on Hamilton held the race in an iron grip that simply crushed everybody else, and won by more than a minute.
Throughout his recent trials he has maintained an outwardly even demeanour and not let the situation around him get on top of him. That is an interesting sign that he can weather such storms even if those closest to him are troubled by them. And boy, can he ever drive in the rain.
"There is nothing really I could take from Ayrton in the wet," he said, when the inevitable comparisons were drawn. "All I know is that he was spectacular in the wet, and growing up I knew that was something I wanted to master too. All my career I have worked very, very hard to become good in the wet. I am very sensitive, very comfortable in the wet, it comes naturally.
"And it hasn't been a matter of getting my mind right, it was always right, but I've just had a lot on my plate really. Some things in my personal life, nothing too serious, life in general. I want to win, I work hard, and I never have any doubts about my abilities, so I just keep pushing and eventually get there."
Sir Frank Williams said back in January that we were in for a wonderful season of racing and he was right, with Hamilton and his Ferrari rivals, Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, all level on 48 points heading into next weekend's German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, and Robert Kubica on 46.
Aerodynamic and mechanical changes have significantly improved the McLaren's balance, leading to a timely uplift in performance as Silverstone marked the season's midpoint. There, Ferrari looked worse than they really were because of strategic errors, but Hamilton believes he now has the tools to fight them for the rest of the year. "It's too early to say for sure," he said, "but we have made some very good steps."
And, as the FIA president Max Mosley's tawdry sex case drags through the courts, Hamilton boosted his troubled sport and spoke like a philosopher king who knows his crown awaits at season's end as he reflected on his upturn in fortune.
"Martin Luther King said something: 'It is not the times when we triumph and are successful that make us who we are, but the times when we are at our worst and going through our troubles that really build us and make us who we are.'
"That's a long way off the actual quote," he admitted, "but that's a very important thing." As important as victory at Silverstone.
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